Can Northern Programs Compete For Talent?

Recruiting top talents has always been an uphill battle for college baseball's cold weather programs. Those programs have had to be creative in their efforts to secure commitments from top high school players in their regions. With rules changes and a new recruiting landscape, cold weather programs have been forced to start recruiting younger and younger players. Is this good for the game?

NCAA guidelines prevent coaches from speaking publicly of a prospect that has yet to sign a National Letter of Intent. There are no rules broken when a coach tweets "today was a great day of recruiting" or "our program got a little better today" if a prospect commits, however.

I woke up Monday morning to a tweet from a recruiting coordinator who was on the road to see a recruit, a stud, a future-(insert college nickname here) on the fourth day of the contact period. Curious to who the stud was, I texted the coach. The first name that came to my mind was a highly touted freshman from a regional powerhouse.

A freshman. As in a player that has yet to take the field in a high school contest.

The coach quipped that they are still working on their 2014 class, that they don't have time yet to focus on class of 2016 members. But I didn't think anything of it that my initial reaction was wrong. That's the state of recruiting, and it's a sad state. With more high school sophomores committed than those of the junior class he was on the recruiting trail to follow, the recruiting coordinator said college recruiters are out of hand with the early recruiting. Out hand they may be, but it is a necessary evil.

In the summer of 2010, two high-level northern programs had coaching vacancies: Ohio State and Notre Dame. When I spoke to coaches who were candidates, there was a common response to the question of what was needed to get the Buckeyes and Irish back to their early-2000s level when Notre Dame participated in the 2002 College World Series and Ohio State came up a game short in 2003: reeling in top local talent.

While not the talent hot beds of Georgia, Florida, California and Arizona, Indiana and Ohio have produced their share of top draft picks. Recent drafts have seen the selections of Andrew Brackman (Cincinnati), Derek Dietrich (Cleveland), Kyle Gibson (Greenfield, IN), Andrew Oliver (Cleveland) and Drew Storen (Brownsburg, IN). None of those five players chose to attend their state's premier university, however, respectively opting for NC State, Georgia Tech, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Stanford.

The allure of heading south or west is hard to turn away for a top high school player. Top 2013 draft prospect OF/LHP Trey Ball of New Castle, Ind., has signed with Texas, and the Midwest's top 2012 prep prospect, LHP Matt Smoral of Solon, Ohio, signed with North Carolina before spurning the Tar Heels for the Toronto Blue Jays and their $2 million signing bonus. Programs from the ACC, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 offer a greater chance to compete for a national championship, whereas 10 years passed before Kent State was able to become the next Midwest program to follow up on Notre Dame's trip to Omaha.

The list of why a southern program may be more attractive to a prospect goes beyond the access to Omaha. Though vast improvements have been made throughout the Big Ten, southern programs have the crown jewels of college baseball facilities. Inside the majestic stadiums, southern programs enjoy tremendous crowds in front of upwards of 38 home games. The weather not only welcomes fans to the ballpark, it welcomes players to an actual field in February for team practice and during the winter months for individual work. It is no secret college baseball's current structures works in favor of southern programs; the real question is what can northern programs do to combat their power-conference foes?

One answer has been to recruit players earlier in their high school careers.

Instead of having Arizona State see an uncommitted rising senior from Chicago at a travel tournament and offer a spot on the team that is jumped on, Purdue or Michigan, for example, wants to make sure that player is long committed to their program, impose a tugging of the heart at turning away the in-state school of one's dreams. If star athlete resides in Ohio, chances are high that he is an Ohio State football fan. Before Stanford can send someone to a showcase the week after his junior season with a walk-on opportunity, Ohio State wants that recruit to think long and hard about any outside offer, to think back to those recruiting visits inside the Horseshoe.

A few years back, if a player was uncommitted after his junior season, it would be easy for Ole Miss to bump aside, for example, Indiana. A player may have caught the eye of Georgia's staff while playing in a tournament in East Cobb, but Cincinnati's staff wanted one more look at him, only to find that they were already too late and should have made their move sooner. Five-to-eight years ago, the solution for Indiana and Cincinnati to compete for those recruits was to work for a commitment before those recruits reached their junior seasons.

But now in 2013 even that is solution is becoming more difficult for the northern programs to execute.

Within two years, the showcase organization Prep Baseball Report has grown from operating in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri to more than doubling its coverage to include Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Charging players upwards to $300 for events, PBR puts on showcases where players are video-recorded taking batting practice, fielding balls, throwing pitches. It's a lucrative business that has no signs of slowing down. With PBR gaining influence, more kids have the opportunity to be seen early and often. While it's great for Louisville to see a kid down the street, that same kid is also now being seen at an early age by Arkansas, LSU and Vanderbilt, thus negating Louisville's window of opportunity to recruit without competition for that player early in his high school career.

This change in the recruiting landscape is forcing northern programs to recruit local players even earlier in their high school careers, sometimes as early as those players' freshman seasons, in order to be able to make offers before a program that is a regular in Omaha arrives on those players' recruiting radars.

On Jan. 19, the NCAA announced 26 adopted proposals to the rules book for Division I schools that are said to be more meaningful, enforceable and supportive of student-athletes' success. Since then, I have reached out to various northern coaches to get their sense of how they think the rule changes would affect college baseball. While there are differing sides as to the benefit of three instead of two coaches on the recruiting trail at once, or whether or not having no differentiation between texts and telephone calls matters, one recruiting coordinator took time to voice what he feels is a change that is needed that was not addressed: the recruiting timeline.

This coach feels if the NCAA really wants to implement changes that are meaningful and aid the wellness of the student-athlete, earlier direct access to players is needed. Within the current rules, the coach believes that he is handicapped in reaching players and showing what his program has to offer. Instead of having direct contact, he often feels it is necessary to go through a travel coach. There is a concern that given the opportunity to steer a player towards an elite program or the one down the road, the travel coach will see sending multiple kids to big-time programs as a recruiting tool to attract waves of top talent, thus putting the traveling coach's interests ahead of the needs of the player.

Big Ten schools, in particular, are also facing the handicap of their own conference rules when it comes to recruiting players, especially early in those players' high school careers.

Under Big Ten rules, teams are prevented from over-extending aid offers to recruits. Where a school from a marquee conference has the ability to offer scholarships that add up to more than the permitted 11.7 needing not to worry about meeting that 11.7 until the players arrive on campus, the Big Ten only allows a team to offer one full-scholarship-in-aid over two student-athletes. If Michigan State has a group of recruits that have been committed since their sophomore season, they better hit on those players. The inability to over-sign puts on emphasis on who is signed and brought to campus, thus making it riskier for Big Ten programs to gain commitments from younger players who could change their minds two years after making their initial commitment. There is also an inherent risk in recruiting younger players in that they may not develop over their final few years in high school as teams anticipated they would, while other high school players may emerge later in their high school careers as they develop physically.

For northern programs to succeed, however, they will need to secure the talent in their own home states. Consequently, despite the risks of seeking commitments from high school freshmen and sophomores, northern programs will likely continue to mine that group.

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